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<—Olga, Nursing & a Declaration of War

Olga’s Diary (Continued) 

Life goes on:   A strange thing happened this morning, a gentleman called out.

 “Nurse”

It took a few moments before I realized he meant me.  It was a bit of a shock, but a very pleasant one. 

Sister Tutor says even in wartime there has to be a routine in hospital.  The day always starts the same with Sister re-arranging the flowers and potted plants which had been taken out of the ward the night before and put in the sluice room because Matron says they give off poisonous carbon monoxide during the night.  It’s a hospital superstition, too, that no lilies are allowed in the wards because they’re considered to be unlucky and you never have red and white flowers in the same vase either because that means death.

 I have to clean each marble-topped locker next to the patient’s bed and wipe out the fruit bowl that stands on it.   Then the beds are pulled away from the wall for a maid to sweep the floor and which Matron likes highly polished, which is fine if you are wearing rubber sole shoes, but for the patients wearing slippers it can be a difficult.

 I was helping an old man to the toilet yesterday morning and he was fairly steady on his feet to start with, but suddenly he slipped, lost his balance and ended up on his bottom and me with him.   The other patients had a good laugh at our expense and I thought it was funny too, but Sister Tutor was furious with me.

Everything and everyone has to be neat and tidy ready for Matron’s mid morning inspection.  The staff, including the doctors, have to line up in a row and woe betide us if the ward isn’t up to Matron’s standard.  She expects us to know all the patient’s names and their medical condition.

When war was first declared I was frightened, especially because normal every day things changed.  The cinema and theatres closed, and that upset me, because I’m crazy about films and I used to go every week with Joanne, but now we have to find other forms of entertainment.

 Moores discovered a pub near the hospital and she and some of the other student nurses go there quite a bit, but I don’t drink, so I haven’t been there yet.    Moores and I are working on the same ward at the moment, which is fun, and when we’re doing beds together we get the chance to talk and I hear all about what happened  in the pub the night before.

This morning we were changing the bottom sheet of a bed, with the patient still in it, and Moores was telling me about this Canadian soldier who said he can get her some French champagne and silk stockings.  Each time we moved the patient he broke a little wind and at first we ignored him and carried on chatting, but then he did it again and we started to laugh and couldn’t stop and what’s more neither could the patient, which made him break wind louder and more often and then all the other patients joined in and they didn’t even know what they were laughing about. 

But it was a wonderful moment especially as there was no one around to tell us off.   You need little moments like that because it helps to take away the tension and worry for a little bit, and it’s amazing how much better you feel afterwards.  

Moores is such fun, you know, she says to me

 “Olga, eat life or life eats you”. 

So I’ve decided to have some fun and go out with her tonight, but I won’t tell Joanne because she thinks Moores is a bad influence on me.  Joanne says the first year examination is not easy and I should be studying hard for it. 

 

 The Rose Public House:   I’ve never been inside a public house before but, apart from being very smoky, it was really quite nice.  Moores always finds someone to talk to but I was happy to sit quietly drinking my ginger beer.  For the first time since the war started I felt safe there, perhaps, because it’s used by soldiers and watching people enjoy themselves, laughing and having a good time, makes you forget about how worried you are about the war and exams.

I never go out on my own at night because it’s so dark with all the street lights turned off, but at least the lamp posts are painted white so we don’t bump into them and the edges of the pavements have been painted white too.   Moores, Ethel and I each carry a little torch which we have to shine downwards onto the pavement.  But we had a nasty shock on the way home from a night out.

We were passing a doorway when Ethel let out a  scream.  We looked up and there was a woman’s face lit up in the doorway.  She had a little torch pinned to her coat so that the light shone on her face and she was wearing a fox fur around her neck.   The  fox’s eyes were glinting in the light, its tiny teeth bared in a snarl and it had little paws and a bushy tail that hung loose.   I’m not surprised Ethel screamed, it was a frightening sight.  Moores said the woman was a prostitute waiting for clients.   Moores knows about everything, you know.

 

We’re being blitzed:   It has been difficult for me to write because we have been so busy in the hospital and to be truthful I haven’t felt like it. 

Everything has changed.  

Germany’s planes have been dropping bombs on London day and night and the devastation is awful.  Hundreds of people have been killed, thousands injured and hundreds of thousands are without homes.  The bombing raids can last for hours without any let up.  But, most of all I dread it when the Germans bomb at night, which they do frequently. Every part of London is being bombed including here in Camberwell. 

A landmine exploded nearby and several homes were blown up, many of  the casualties were brought here.  There seem to be fires burning somewhere in London day and night.  Other cities are being bombed as well but the Germans certainly seem determined to destroy London. 

I start to shake when I hear the air raid siren sound and even when the all clear is given I’m too frightened to go out.  I’ve been keeping away from Moores and Ethel, using study as an excuse to stay in, because I don’t want them to think I’m a coward, but I’m ashamed of myself too, because the people who are homeless and have lost everything still have their fighting spirit and say they won’t be beaten by Germany.   

Joanne came to see me at St Giles during a break between bombings and made me go for a long walk with her.  I felt much better afterwards, especially, when she told me that she was afraid too.

“Olga, we must do our job and put our trust in God” she said. 

We talked about our families and wondered if they knew how bad things were here in London.  The letters Joanne receives are heavily censored too and so we think the ones we write home are as well.  It’s heartbreaking; I’m desperate to receive news from Mammie and the family and when I do get a letter, line after line has been crossed out with black ink so I’m left with hardly anything to read.  And you feel as if someone is spying on you.  The censors know more about what’s going on with my family than I do.

Joanne says “We should be grateful, at least they open the letters carefully and don’t tear them.” 

  Any day now Joanne’s waiting to hear if she’s passed her final exam so that when the war’s over she can fulfil her dream and go back to Jamaica a qualified nurse.

“And, if you study hard Olga, so will you”

“Who knows, maybe we can work together in Jamaica”. she said

 I’ll tell you something Dear Diary, I struck gold when she sat down beside me that day in Regents Park. 

 

<—Olga, Nursing & a Declaration of War

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Olga’s Diary (Continued)

 

Dear Diary

War:    Moores and I were in Oxford Street, when the air raid siren went, shopping for a new dress for her date that night with an army officer.  We’d just reached John Lewis when it sounded and we knew it meant we were going to be bombed by the Germans. Suddenly people started running like mad in all directions including us.  Terrified we hopped onto a bus without even knowing where it was going just to get off the street. 

By the time we got back to the hospital we had learnt it been a false alarm, but our relief didn’t last long because we were told that Britain was finally at war with Germany.  There’d been lots of talk about war before but I wouldn’t listen.

 I don’t want to go home, I want to stay and become a nurse, but I made a promise to Sydney and Mammie so, sooner or later Olga, you’re going to have to leave.  Moores and Ethel say I should go; at least I’ll be safe in Jamaica.  I told them I was frightened of being bombed, but I don’t want to return home not having achieved anything after spending six months in England, especially as it has cost my brother a lot of money.  

A few days later, great big silver barrage balloons hanging from cables were seen in the sky all over London.  They were to stop the German bombs from hitting their targets in the city.  I thought they looked like big silver elephants.  One of our first jobs when we started our training was to put black material over the windows so that at night time no light from the hospital wards could escape and the Germans wouldn’t be able to see London from the air and drop their bombs.  

We have all been given a gas mask and Sister Tutor demonstrated how to put it on.  You have to thrust your chin forward pulling the black rubber over the face and up over the forehead leaving your eyes peering out from the two holes.  There’re horrible smelly things and I tore mine off, I couldn’t breathe with it on. 

Then we had to fill out a form so the Government could issue everyone with an identity card.

And now ration books have appeared, although nurses don’t have them because we eat at the hospital. Ethel’s family are poor and she says ration books are a wonderful thing because food is distributed evenly and, poor families like hers, get the same as rich ones like Moores. 

But some days I’d be so hungry my mind would start thinking about the food markets back home where you can buy lovely meals very cheaply.  I find I’m dreaming of gungo peas soup with large pieces of yam and salt beef, vegetables and lovely dumplings or salt-fish and ackee or chicken with rice and peas and yam with half a boiled plantain.   And in the end I just feel hungrier than ever.  Now I’ve developed a taste for sugar sandwiches.

 

Dear Diary

Unhappy news:   War doesn’t make any difference to Sister Tutor; she’s still very strict and only has to raise an eyebrow to show her disapproval about something I’ve done or haven’t done. 

This morning I broke a thermometer and have to pay 6d out of my wages to replace it.   I’m not thinking about the war, all I can think about is passing the exam at the end of the three months.

 Moores, Ethel and I test each other whenever we have time and if I get really stuck on something, Joanne helps me.    Matron wants to see me.  I can’t think what I’ve done wrong.

 

Later:  I couldn’t stop shaking waiting outside Matron’s office.  When I entered she told me to sit down and I knew it was bad news.  She never tells nurses to sit down, we always have to stand to attention as if we’re on parade like soldiers in the army.

 “I have some bad news for you Olga” she said in such a kindly voice it barely sounded like her.

 “I’m afraid you cannot go home to Jamaica.  Because of the war the Government has banned all non essential travel out of Britain which means you will have to stay until the war ends”

I suddenly  burst into tears.

 “It’s not so bad really, is it Olga, think how proud your family be will when you do return home as a fully qualified nurse” she said. 

Then she sat down beside me and put her arm round my shoulders and I cried even more.  I was crying so much partly because Matron was being so kind and calling me Olga, instead of Browney, but also because, although I wanted to stay and finish my training, now I had no choice in the matter, I had to stay and suddenly I had such an urge to see Mammie and my sisters. 

“I’m sure the war won’t last long and in the meantime we need you here”. 

“Yes Matron, thank you Matron,” I sobbed.

 I was still crying as I reached the door to leave and she called out to me.

“Wait, I nearly forgot”.  She was holding a sheet of paper in her hand and there was a little smile on her face.

 “Congratulations, Browney, you passed your first exam”.

 

Mammie’s (Becky) Diary

 At last, I have been able to talk to Olga on the telephone, not that I could hear very much because the line was poor and crackly and we only had three minutes.   The tots and Birdie all managed to say hello and tell her they loved her.  At least now I know she’s well and safe, but her place is here at home. 

I should have insisted that Sydney brought her back. Lucy was right all along when she said Hitler couldn’t be trusted and had invaded Poland.   It’s all very well for people to say that the war between Britain and Germany won’t last long, but how do they know, it could go on longer than the first war.  No one knows for sure except God. 

There are reports that people are starving in England.  Could this be true.  Olga starving?  The Daily Gleaner says that the predicted bombing hasn’t happened and many who evacuated London when war was declared are returning to their homes. So maybe things will not be as bad as everyone first thought.     

Olga says she hasn’t seen Martha for weeks.  Why, I wonder?  What has been happening between those two?  Now I have something else to worry about.  There was no mention of anything wrong between them in Olga’s last letter.  There wasn’t much of anything really because there was so little to read since most of it had been censored with heavy black ink. 

But she has passed an exam we are all very proud of her.  I went down to the meat market for the first time for years, just to tell Henry.  Olga’s status seems to have gone up a lot already as far as the younger girls are concerned and she has certainly impressed the rest of the family with her resolve to come home a fully qualified nurse.  As Birdie says “beats working in a bicycle shop”.

It sounds as if Olga has become very fond of her friend Joanne. 

Do you know what I think?  I think the hand of God was at work there.  He sent Joanne to look after Olga.  But even so, we will still continue to pray for Olga’s safety.

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 <—Sydney Comes to London – 1939           Olga, Nursing &  Declaration of War —>

 

(Olga’s Diary Continued) 

Dear Diary

 St Giles Hospital:  I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.  Not too long ago I was spending my mornings sitting on a park bench in Regent’s Park feeling sorry for myself and now I’m standing in a line with other student nurses listening to Sister.   

“These are the rules for student nurses and I expect you to commit them to memory” barked Sister as she handed each new student nurse a rule sheet. 

A stout, straight talking woman from Yorkshire with grey hair and voice that only seemed to have one volume, loud. 

“It is my pleasure to guide you through your nursing training until you become fully qualified nurses” Sister Tutor was referring to us by our surnames and when someone asked why, she said that’s how it is in hospital.

“We don’t use Christian names, only surnames”.

Honestly, I don’t like the idea of someone calling me Browney.

RULES FOR NURSES

  • walk at all times, only run in case of fire
  • stand when a senior member of staff enters
  • always open the door for the doctor
  • never overtake a senior member of staff on the stairs
  • no make up on duty 
  • hair not to reach your collar
  • nails must be short 
  • black stockings only when on duty and no ladders in them
  • low heel shoes
  • on duty by 7.00 am
  • in bed by 10.30 pm

 I felt uncomfortable and awkward in my student nurse’s uniform, my black frizzy hair poking out at different angles under a heavily starched white cap which needs four hair grips to hold it in place.  My grey dress had a little white collar which fastened tightly round my neck and was nearly choking me and over the dress I wore a starched white apron with a wide belt around my waist.  I didn’t like the feel of the thick black stockings on my skin and the thick black rubber soled shoes felt like lead weights on the end of my feet.

There are nine other student nurses in my group but Alison Moores, Ethel Richards and me are friends already.   I don’t really know why because we are so different.  

For a start Moores is aristocracy from top to bottom; she talks beautifully and I think she sounds very posh, she’s tall, with dark hair, which used to be long before Matron told her she would have to cut it before she started her training.  Moores has a perfect peaches and cream complexion, is very confident, elegant, and looks more like a film star than a student nurse.  Her parents are rich and they make some kind of cold cream for women and sold in jars by the thousands.   They sent her into nursing because they said she comes from a privileged background and should give something back to society.  Ethel asked her why she wasn’t doing her training at one of the big teaching hospitals and Moores said she had thought about it but preferred to be amongst real people in a smaller hospital. 

Ethel is from the East End of London, only 5 ft tall with, lovely twinkling green eyes that always seem to be smiling, a round face framed with red curly hair and a cockney accent which I don’t understand sometimes and when she smiles she shows off a set of perfectly even white teeth. Sometimes she reminds me of Vivie because she’s not frightened of any form of authority, neither Sister Tutor nor Matron.  Ethel says it’s because she grew up with five brothers and because she’s the only girl in the family she always had to fight for what she wanted.

And then there’s me.  One day I asked Moores how she had described me to her parents and she smiled as she said:

“Slim, not very tall, brown skin, not particularly pretty, short frizzy black hair which she wears with either a blue or yellow ribbon, slightly bushy eyebrows above huge brown eyes that seem to be in a permanent state of astonishment at everything she sees or hears, a beautiful smile and a soft voice that fits like a glove with her gentle manner”.  

Isn’t that a lovely description?   

It’s funny Moores comes from a very rich family and she’s not stuck up or anything.   I’m the only coloured person in the whole of the hospital, as far as I know, and people do stare at me sometimes.  Moores tells me not to worry about it. 

“They stare at you because you’re a novelty Olga, that’s all”. 

Ethel says she doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her and neither should I, but sometimes I feel a bit uncomfortable.   

 

  Letter to Mammie, Kingston, Jamaica
from Olga, Student Nurses Home, St Giles Hospital, Camberwell, London

Dearest Mammie

The weeks fly by, such a lot to do and learn. We are on duty from 7.00 in the morning until 7 in the evening with only a coffee and lunch break.   Please don’t worry about me because I am happy, tired but happy, and I have made friends with two other student nurses.

So far I have learnt about hygiene, how to take a temperature, how to stack linen, how to put a bandage on a patient and how a treatment tray should be laid up.  Once a week we spend a morning on the ward and one of my jobs is to feed the patients. 

Oh Mammie, I love it so much, the patients are so grateful when you do something for them. Sister Tutor praised my bed making the other day, you see Mammie it’s important to make beds properly with the sheet corners turned in and the open ends of the pillow slips mustn’t face the door into the ward – the sewn end must face the door. 

The top sheets are folded over the counterpanes and have to be the same width and the fold has to be sixteen inches.  I find the best way to check is to measure from my fingertips to my elbow.

Matron is fierce and Sister Tutor stern and doesn’t smile at all.  I find it difficult to remember things so now I carry a note book around with me and write down as much as I can, especially the things I don’t understand.  When I meet Joanne she explains the things to me that I’ve been too frightened to ask Sister Tutor to repeat in case she thinks I’m stupid. 

Lectures are nearly always when we’re off duty and in one of our first lessons I met Henry who scared the life out of me.  Henry’s a skeleton that hangs from the ceiling in the lecture room and we have to memorise the names of each bone in his body.   Sometimes when I look at all those bones I think of Aggie Burns.  If she could see Henry, I bet she’d love to get her hands on his bones for her Obeah man.

I got into trouble the other day as I was preparing the patients’ tea and I was holding the loaf of bread against my chest while I was trying to slice it with a knife and Sister Tutor was furious with me.

“Don’t you have any common sense and realize how dangerous it is to try and cut bread like that”. 

And then she showed me how to cut it on the table.  I told her I’d never cut bread before because either Aggie Burns or Cassie did it.   Sister Tutor said nothing but gave me a very funny look.   I’m not lonely any more Mammie because I have three good friends now and that’s all I need.  

Your loving daughter,  Olga

 <—Sydney Comes to London – 1939       Olga, Nursing &  Declaration of War —> 

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<—-Aunt Martha,  Paddington                     Olga – A Student Nurse –>

When I asked my mother (Olga) how safe she felt in London during the first part of 1939, she said she wasn’t worried because people felt that war with Adolph Hitler had been averted.   

Maybe the previous war was still fresh in people’s minds (after all in 1939  it was less than 20 years since the end of WWI) and that was why they simply couldn’t believe that the world could go through all that devastation again.   Personally, had I been in my mother’s shoes, I’d have headed straight back to the safety of  Kingston, Jamaica.

The reality for my mother was that war was a heartbeat away and she was in a strange country living with a malevolent, alcoholic aunt and had no idea that world events, personal tragedy and malicious intent would all combine to prevent her from returning home to Jamaica.  

the-browneys-tree

(Olga’s Diary Continued)

Dear Diary

Fate steps in:  Three days later two things happened one after the other. 

First, Sydney got a big discount, bigger than he anticipated, on some bicycles he ordered for the shops and the second thing that happened was that he took ill and was rushed, by ambulance, to St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington with appendicitis.  Hours later his appendix was out and he was being looked after by Nurse Megan Lloyd who comes from Wales. 

My “good old holiday” with Sydney is now being spent sitting by his bed every day in St Mary’s watching the nurses do their work while he sleeps.   I noticed that the patients have a great respect for the nurses, which is nice, and, as I like the idea of helping people get well, a plan was beginning to develop that would mean I could stay in London and make Mammie and the family really proud of me.   

When I thought the time was right I mentioned to Sydney I would like to become a nurse.  His immediate reaction was definitely not, you’re going home with me and no arguing.  So I enlisted help.  Joanne and Nurse Lloyd.  Sydney had taken a shine to Joanne and she pointed out to him the benefits of being a nurse and how it would help our community back home when I returned to Jamaica a fully qualified nurse whose training had been in a big London hospital.  It took both of them to persuade Sydney to at least have an interview with Matron at St Mary’s.  When AM heard her reaction was disbelief. 

“A great hospital like St Mary’s only takes white, middle class young ladies to train as nurses” she told us.

“They would never accept a coloured person so don’t waste your time seeing Matron, just to be told no.” 

She was right, but, for the wrong reason.  Within five minutes of sitting in Matron’s office she announced I couldn’t study nursing there because I didn’t have a school leaving certificate but suggested we try the smaller St Giles Cottage Hospital in Camberwell. 

“You’ll have more success there because not too long ago and before it became a hospital, it used to be a work house and they’re not so particular about their nurses”, AM told me, when Sydney was out of earshot.

We had an interview with Matron at St Giles, and shortly afterwards I was offered a place on a residential three month basic nursing programme, but first I had to have a medical. 

  

Dear Diary 

Good news:    I’ve been offered a nursing place and the best part of my new job is that I’ll be living in the Nurses’ Home at the hospital so don’t have to live with AM any more.  Oh happy days! 

I could see Sydney was proud of me and I knew Mammie would be too, in spite of being disappointed that I wouldn’t be going home now.  I had to promise Sydney that if war broke out I would come home immediately.  He gave me enough money for my fare and to keep me going until I got my first month’s wages which was going to be £2 a month.   He also bought all the books I needed for studying, plus three pairs of thick black stockings and my black shoes.  The rest of my nurses’ uniform would be provided by the hospital.

The night before Sydney left to go home he took Joanne and me to the theatre to see the Ivor Novello musical, The Dancing Years, and afterwards we had supper in a posh late night restaurant. 

 If I hadn’t met Joanne I’m not sure I would have chosen to become a nurse, but knowing that she would be close by,  helped me to decide and that was a big comfort, not only to me, but to Sydney too, I think.   He could reassure Mammie that I had at least one good friend.  Sitting at the dining table watching them dance together, I thought wouldn’t it be just perfect if one day Joanne became my sister-in-law. 

Something to pray for Olga.

 <—-Aunt Martha,  Paddington                    Olga – A Student Nurse –>

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<—Becky – Living in Kingston, Jamaica                               Olga’s Diary —>

 

 

When I visited my family in Jamaica in 1996 only six of Mum’s siblings were still alive.  Boysie, Birdie, Pearl, Chickie (christened Kathleen), Ruby and Dolly.  Boysie was living in Canada and I never got to meet him, although Mum spoke to him on the phone. 

 

It was wonderful to finally meet some of Mum’s family – my extended family, the family that as a child I’d always longed for but which, in the main, Mum didn’t like to talk about.  She’d say, “it makes me sad”.  But ironically, when she was sad, that was when she’d open up a bit and I gleaned little bits of information about her family.  I knew that as small children Mum, Ruby and Dolly had been very close and it was interesting to see just how much Ruby and Dolly looked like Mum, as well as being a bit unnerving. 

 

Although I’d warned my aunts before I left the UK that Mum wouldn’t be coming with me to Kingston because she had serious health problems, I think a little bit of them was hoping she would appear at the last minute.  But her non appearance didn’t diminish in anyway the reception they gave me.  They had thrown a “Welcome Home” party for me attended by their children – my cousins – and family and their friends.   It was all a bit overwhelming really.  I was so glad my son Stuart had come with me.  My aunts made a great fuss of Stuart too and it took some of the pressure of me.

 

My aunts made a huge fuss of me and were genuinely excited to meet Olga’s daughter.  They were so excited, like small children, constantly chattering and interrupting each other so they could speak to me, hugging me and always one of them holding my hand.  They’d ask me over and over again “How is Olga?”.  “Why didn’t Olga let us know she was alive”?   It was strange to hear Mum being called Olga, because I’d only every known her as Carmen.  When I asked them why she changed her name from Olga to Carmen, they said they had no idea.  She was always Olga to them.  I was to find out the answer to that one later.

 

the-browneys-tree

 

<—Becky – Living in Kingston, Jamaica                                  Olga’s Diary —>

 

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my-mum-aged-883

 

  • In 1994, my mother, Carmen Browne, was admitted to the Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton, England seriously ill. As she slowly recovered I realized that had she died so too would the chance of my finding out about her past, her family in Jamaica and, of particular importance to me, who my father was information she had resolutely refused to share with me. So I decided to find out for myself.

  • My first discovery was that my mother’s real name was Olga Browney, born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica and one of eleven children from a close-knit, coloured Catholic family. A kind, naïve and gentle girl, my mother arrived in London on 1st April in 1939 and lived with a malevolent, alcoholic aunt, intending to stay for only six months. However, world events, personal tragedy and malicious intent all combined to prevent her from returning home to Kingston.

  • I discovered a story of cruelty, revenge and jealousy inflicted on an innocent young woman and how she demonstrated huge moral courage, dignity, resilience and, in particular, love. I learnt what a remarkable woman my mother was, who because of circumstances, made a choice, which resulted in her losing contact with her beloved family in Jamaica, until nearly half a century later when her past caught up her.

    This is her story ——->
     

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